Monday, 24 April 2017

buffalo bill

When I first started to explore the cycling possibilities west of the main railway line into China in 2012, I occasionally spotted a feral buffalo in the Sheung Yiu River. I remember seeing such animals being used to pull ploughs back in the 1970s, but nobody ploughs the land nowadays, and I imagine that this animal was turned loose to fend for itself by its ‘owner’ many years ago.

I’ve seen other feral buffaloes out west (the area around the Kam Tin River), photos of which can be seen in Journey to the West: Part 4 and A Baker’s Dozen. However, it was never possible to get close enough to this particular buffalo to get such detailed pictures, given that I’m using a small pocket camera. Nevertheless, I got into the habit of taking a photograph or two every time I saw it; I often don’t see it for weeks on end, and I begin to wonder whether something has happened, but then it turns up again.

What follows is a chronological sequence of these photos, with the date each was taken. This is the first photo I took:

16th October 2012

I’m not sure why this is so, but I often see egrets hanging around the buffalo, even riding piggyback from time to time. You would not guess from the photo, but here the buffalo is grazing on the bed of the canalized upper section of the river. Given that there does not appear to be anywhere where the buffalo can escape the confines of the river basin, this must be the animal’s only food source. The vegetation is cut from time to time by Drainage Services Department (DSD) personnel. And when I commented above that the buffalo disappeared ‘for weeks on end’, I imagine that it spends this time wandering up and down the upper reaches of the river.

A short distance downstream from the location of the previous photo, the nature of the river changes, and instead of a winter channel that carries all of what little water there is during the dry season, the river opens out and becomes tidal. Just downstream from this point is a large mudbank that is exposed at low tide, and as you will see, the buffalo can often be spotted here (note the caked mud on the buffalo’s back in the previous photo).

22nd October 2012

The next photo shows the transition point between the tidal section of the river and its upper reaches. Note the winter channel in the foreground. There are DSD access roads on both sides of the river, but we usually follow the one on the far side in this photo. The pipeline carries water from China, without which Hong Kong would not survive. I still remember the extreme water-rationing measures imposed in the 1970s, before the High Island Dam was completed, although this imaginative scheme appears not to have been sufficient to meet the territory’s needs.

6th December 2012

Perhaps I should have made a note of the air temperature when I took the next photo, but the buffalo does seem to enjoy wallowing in the water:

13th December 2012

The next two photos were taken about half an hour later than the previous photo and show the probable downstream limit of the buffalo’s wanderings.

13th December 2012

13th December 2012

Yes, the egret really is standing on the buffalo’s head!

15th January 2013

Just resting:

24th April 2013

Incidentally, I discussed the round holes you can see in this photo in The Mystery of the Holes and received some interesting information on their nature.

I often see the mudbank exposed at low tide, with obvious animal tracks that lead across it, but here the culprit has been caught in the act:

28th November 2014

And here the buffalo is taking another dip:

23rd November 2015

The next photo illustrates another mystery. It shows the convergence of three winter channels, which the buffalo must cross in order to reach the tidal section of the river further downstream. How does it do this? I’d love to find out, because they look fairly impassable to me.

31st December 2016

We always used to look out for ‘the buffalo’, but around this time, we decided that the buffalo really ought to have a name. We considered ‘Wally’, and ‘Fred’, and ‘Donald’—there’s a buffoon with the same name in Washington—but when you think about it, the only appropriate name for a buffalo must be ‘Bill’. So now we ask ‘Where’s Bill?’ when we cycle this way.

Yet only six days later, I thought that Bill must be dead:

5th January 2017

…but three and a half hours later, he was clearly alive:

5th January 2017

The next three photos show Bill just resting. I wonder whether he’s simply waiting for the tide to roll back in:

16th February 2017

16th February 2017

17th February 2017

Another egret is using Bill as a perch:

25th March 2017

The next two photos show Bill using a dead branch as a scratching post. You can see the relief in his face:

8th April 2017

8th April 2017

The final two photos show Bill lounging in the mud yet again. Paula reckoned that he was watching me intently as I took these photos, but he was 20 metres away, so I don’t think this can be an accurate observation.

17th April 2017

17th April 2017

There is an interesting existential question that I don’t think would occur to many people but I thought I’d mention. We’ve been looking out for Bill for almost five years now, and one of these days we’ll see him for the last time. But when we do see him for the last time, we won’t know, at the time, that it is the last time. Sad!


  1. I wonder how many more years Bill can stay alive, but it always bring us some reassurance of its presence whether it was lying on the muddy bank or enjoying an egret sitting over its back

    1. There are quite a few unknowns. How old is Bill? How long has been stalking around the river? How long will we continue to see him?

      And I don’t expect to discover any of the answers.

  2. I don't know exactly how long he's been there, but I remember seeing him about 7 or 8 years ago, possibly even as long as 10 years ago. I haven't been past for a while, so good to know he's still doing well.
    The egrets are Cattle Egrets, well known for following buffalo and cattle (and other large animals - even elephants overseas!). They feed on insects disturbed by the buffalo, as well as any large flies attracted to the buffalo (so provide a pest-control service)
    The holes in the mud are made by Tilapia fish for display. They presumably make the nest at high tide, and it is then exposed at low tide. They're common in many wetlands in HK. If you look into the river near Ho Sheung Heung you can often see huge numbers of Tilapia.

    1. Thank you for such detailed information John. There are several species of egret in Hong Kong, so I’m not sure that they’re cattle egrets, but I can understand your explanation of why they’re hovering around Bill. The birds I see fishing elsewhere in the river are either greater or lesser egrets.

      I was told that the round holes are created by tilapia, but I don’t think you would see them in the river near Ho Sheung Heung anymore. The river there has a concrete bed nowadays.


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